Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Demographic patterns and structural change in North Africa and the Middle East

The political turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt that precipitated the abrupt end of decades of political dictatorships that governed the vast majority of countires in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. The political revolution, influenced by democratic upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt, facilitated the attempts to overhaul the autocratic regimes in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

One of the most interesting and highlighting puzzles to resolves is which features contributed to the rise of democratic revolutions sweeping across the entire region. In fact, MENA region is world's largest exporter of oil, enjoying the largest oil reserves in the world. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, Libya and Kuwait constitute more than 42 percent of world oil reserves. In recent decades, MENA region experienced a growing degree of macroeconomic stability with low and stable inflation rate and steady economic growth. Large oil inflows, driven by the growing oil consumption in emerging markets such as China and India, boosted local currency appreciation and current account surpluses. The rates of growth in recent decade were remarkable, reflecting the growth of domestic demand as well as robust investment as the engine of growth. Countries in the MENA region also enjoyed favorable demographic conditions with low old-age dependency ratio and high share of working-age population, resulting in a demographic dividend which brought robust economic growth.

The indices of political change in the MENA countries prior to the outburst of the political protests in Tunisia and Egypt were nearly impossible to predict since a variety of macroeconomic, demographic and structural indicators facilitate the course of political change in developing countries, shifting from authoritarian political leadership towards a democratic political institutions with free press, free election and a vibrant civil society. Prior to the onset of the protests against authoratic governments in the MENA countries, the latter experienced benign levels of economic freedom. In the MENA region, the majority of countries experienced rampant corruption, heavily regulated labor markets, financial underdevelopment and inefficient legal systems. Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia enjoyed the highest degree of economic freedom in the region while Yemen, Syria and Algeria were already suffering from institutional paralysis and bad governance which brought these countries on the brink of failed states. If political change could be predicted on the basis of the level of overall economic freedom, Yemen, Syria, Algeria and Libya would experience the highest likelihood of political protests that would eventually lead to the political change.

Prior to the independence from France, MENA countries have been plagued by authoritarian governments given the extensive reserves of oil and natural gas. The absence of market institutions based on the rule of law under good governance and independent judicial systems eventually intensifed the rise of hybrid political regimes prone to corruption and poor governance. Even though corrupt military rule and political dicatorship precipitated the rise of the protests against authoratic rule, the pattern of structural change could be easily seen from the changing demographic landscape across the MENA region.

For most of the 20th century, countries in the MENA regions experienced rising income per capita levels. In fact, the growth of per capita incomes in North Africa surpassed the regional average given the fact that North African countries enjoyed high relative levels of income per capita at the beginning of the 20th century compared to Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, in 1913, Tunisia enjoyed higher per capita income than Mauritius. The change in the demographic structure of the population began after 1950s. In all countries of the MENA region, the fertility rate decreased substantially. In Syria, the fertility rate almost halved between 1950-1955 and 2005-2010, from 7.30 to 3.29. The same trend in the fertility rate swept across the entire region. In Libya, the fertility rate between 2005 and 2010 fell below 3 children per women while Tunisia's fertility rate dropped below 2 children per women in the same period. The astounding drop in fertility rates strongly reflected the growth in per capita incomes which boosted domestic consumption of durable and non-durable goods. In addition, oil-exporting countries such as Libya and Bahrain have experienced a substantial increase in export earnings. Large inflow of oil earnings, in fact, unleashed the income effect, brining higher spending on education and infrastructure. The distribution of literacy rates across countries (link) shows that literacy rates in MENA regions are remarkably high. In fact, Bahrain and Turkey boast of 88 percent literacy rate. Libya remained the North African leader in literacy rate (86.8 percent), ahead of Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria which, given the fragmentation and dichotomy of the population, enjoy literacy rates below 80 percent of the total population.

Countries from the MENA region differ substantially in the demographic projections of old-age dependency ratio. The estimates by the UN suggest that by 2030, the dependency ratio in North Africa and the Middle East is expected to experience a persistent rise. In fact, under constant fertility rates, the share of the population 65+ is expected to increase by 25 percentage points in Bahrain, 24 percentage points in Libya, 23 percentage points in Tunisia, 20 percentage points in Algeria, 15 percentage points in Syria and Saudi Arabia and 14 percentage points in Egypt. In Turkey, favorable fertility assumptions predict 7 percentage point increase in old-age dependency ratio until 2030. The empirics behind the clear explanation of fertility dyanmics across the MENA region reveals a persistent shift towards rapidly aging population across the entire region. The expedience of high fertility rates boosts the demographic dividend alongside the growth in income per capita until the break-even point when the pressure of aging population raises public pension expenditure and the introduction of social security schemes. These schemes, in fact, do not pose a systemic threat to the long-term solvency of public pension system as long as high fertility rates boost stationary population growth. The remarkable decrease in the fertility rates in the MENA is partly beared by the increasing amount spent on education. For instance, Tunisia's education spending amounted to 7.2 percent of the GDP. The ratio is higher than in many advanced countries in the world. In 2007, Italy spent 4.3 percent of GDP on education, the same ratio as Algeria in the year later. The increasing amount of education expenditure, in both absolute and relative sense, reflects robust literacy rates for middle-income countries of the MENA region. In fact, the increasing amount of education expenditures per inhabitant boosted the information awareness by driving up reading, mathematical and computer literacy. Higher literacy rates, compounded by free access to various Internet applications, could substantiate hypothetically greater awareness of the public demanding political liberties, freedom of assembly and free press.

The demographic transition in the Middle East and North Africa is remarkably uneven, reflecting the variation in income per capita across the region. One of the key drivers of the demographic adjustment is the chagning immigration landscape. Traditionally, North African countries have boosted one of the highest outward migration rates, particulary into Italy and France where Muslims account for about 9 percent of the population, the highest share in Western Europe. In addition, with 2.01 children per women, France enjoys one of the highest fertility rates in Europe. A brief overview of the ethnic fertility rates in France shows that French women of the Muslim origin boost significantly higher fertility rates compared to immigrants from Western countries. For instance, the fertility rates for women of Algerian and Morroccan descent exceed the fertility rates of Spanish and Italian immigrants by almost three times. In the next decade, income per capita across the Arab world is expected to increase robustly. Higher incomes would mean a shift towards the increasing amount of expenditures on durable goods. The change in the consumption pattern would be accompanied by a robust decline in the relative amount of income spent on food and other non-durables. Hence, the assumed fertility rates would converge to the Despite the prolonged decline in fertility rates across the Arab world, the demographic transition could precipitate the subsequent decline in robust economic growth rates which exacerbate the rapid rise in per capita incomes in the MENA region.

The peculiar feature of the majority of countries within the MENA region with the ecxeption of Turkey is the presence of natural resource barriers. The abundance of natural resources, such as oil, phosphate and natural gas, is a major constraint on the quality of public sector governance replaced by the seizure of the state by powerful political elites such as the military regime during the Mubarak rule in Egypt prior to the 2011 revolution. Unless accompanied by democratic institutions and systemic constraints on the executive power, the political revolution can eventually result in the organic evolution of the failed state with a strong persistence of the old elites pushing for the status quo to protect the privileges preserved under the old system. The Arab awakening signalled the beginning of the demographic transition with decreasing fertility rates and slowly growing old-age dependency ratios. Hence, diminishing returns to demographic dividend and the gradual relative decline of the share of the working-age population both indicate a tendency towards greater democratic governance.